Time to Care: Supporting Kinship Caregivers

This article is part of Time to Care, a collaborative story series from Families Valued and Shared Justice, both initiatives of the Center for Public Justice.

By Chelsea Maxwell and Maria Fynaardt

Maria shares what she has learned working in child welfare about the importance of family time. Specifically, she highlights a gap of services for kinship caregivers in securing the rest they need to fully flourish.

CM: How did you begin working in child welfare?

MF: I am passionate about helping vulnerable people, and through my college studies I developed a specific passion for protecting and helping children. While in college, I worked for Safe Families for Children, a church-grounded intervention program that connects children with homes when parents are going through a crisis event and temporarily cannot fulfill their parental responsibilities. I also interned with the Iowa Department of Human Services. In that role, I learned about the ways the state government tries to intervene to protect children when parents aren’t capable of taking care of them.

My first job out of college was with child protective services in Family, Safety, Risk and Permanency (FSRP). In that role, I supervised visits between parents and children who had been removed from the home. I also walked alongside parents, helping them get the resources they needed to meet the court-mandated requirements for successful reunification of their families. I was in that role for nearly a year when I transitioned to my current position as a behavioral health intervention services (BHIS) worker. I currently work with children who have a mental health diagnosis. I provide in-home services for their families to help address behavioral issues.

When assessing families, what are you looking for? What is a safe and healthy family?

We assess parents’ capabilities in a few ways. Do they have an adequate home environment? Concerns arise if the family is experiencing homelessness or if the family’s housing is structurally inadequate or dangerous. Do the children have weather-appropriate clothing in the winter? We also ensure that parents  have the capacity to protect their children from harm. Do the parents bring their child to the doctor when needed? If their child discloses to them that something has happened to them, does the parent get the help their child needs? Safe and healthy families are families that take care of a child physically, emotionally and developmentally.

It sounds like there is a financial component embedded in what it means to be a safe and healthy family. What are the types of paid work your families do to provide for their families?

Production, manufacturing and factory work are common types of work for my families. Construction, hotel hospitality and house cleaners are also common. All of the families I worked with in FSRP qualified as low-income. Most of these jobs are low-income and can have challenging hours, which plays a significant role in how parents are able to care for their children.

There are a lot of components to child welfare we could talk about. What is one area that you think Shared Justice readers should know about?

I really want to talk about relative placements, also referred to as kinship care in some states. Relative placement is any blood relative to the family. We also have suitable others, which are people with a relationship to the family, but not blood relatives. For the duration of this conversation I will use the term “kinship care” to describe both relative and suitable other placements. In general, kinship care is when someone who has a connection with the family steps in to provide a safe home for a child who is being removed from parents, in replacement of the child being placed with a foster family.

From the perspective of the child welfare system, what is the difference between foster care and kinship care?

Foster care households have to be certified by the state. They have to pass the vetting process, including an in-home review by social workers, and are required to participate in trainings. Foster parents are given a stipend for taking in a child. They also have access to benefits like free daycare and respite services. Kinship care households, on the other hand, do not undergo as much vetting as foster parents. Although, their homes do have to be approved as suitable through the child welfare worker.

Kinship caregivers are opening their heart and home to children under the care of the state, but are not receiving support from the state

Foster care gets a lot of coverage, but child welfare workers are encouraged to place children with a kinship placement. It is generally accepted as what is best for the child. The situation is going to be traumatic for the child no matter what; even though they are probably not receiving the care they need, being removed from their parents is a traumatic experience. Our hope is that by placing the child with someone they know - someone who has been and will continue to be part of their life - the experience can be a little less hard and scary. With a kinship caregiver the child can often stay in the same school district and community, whereas in foster care the child is introduced to a whole new person, and we can’t guarantee they will stay attached to their home community. Overall, kinship care is - hopefully - a more comfortable transition for the child while their parents work at stabilizing their lives.

The Time to Care series has been focused on telling the stories of families stretched thin and stressed for time. Why is it important that as part of this series we talk about kinship care?

Taking in a child to your home is a big adjustment and one that requires time and support. Kinship caregivers do not have access to the benefits that are available to support foster parents. In addition to monthly stipends to offset the costs of taking in a foster child, foster parents have access to free daycare and free respite services. When someone voluntarily steps up to be a kinship caregiver, they are opening their heart and home to children under the care of the state but are not receiving support from the state.

We need to make it easier for kinship families to step up. In my work, I have seen how hard and stressful it is for kinship caregivers to adjust. They made this big life change to help a neighbor or extended family member, and suddenly their life looks entirely different. Their time looks entirely different. It’s often the case that caregivers were already in a stressful situation, and suddenly they are in an impossible position.

Here is an example: Alex is a single mom of two children. She works for the local hotel as a maid and is trying to earn a degree in hospitality management. In the middle of the night she gets a call from child welfare. She’s the only local relative to her cousin, whose kids are being removed from her care until she successfully completes substance use treatment. Alex - who knows the kids, knows it’s important they stay together and believes family should step up in these situations - agrees to take in her cousin’s three children. Alex was already stretched thin. Overnight, her situation escalated to impossible.

When you and I have an established rhythm and structure to our week and month, we intuitively carve out time for rest and restoration for ourselves. Rest is integral to flourishing, and our longing for it comes from our identity as made in the image of God. We were designed to work, to be in family and to rest. But, rest is not something built into our kinship care policies. I have had kinship caregivers who would request a weekend of respite care, which is a benefit offered to foster parents in which someone basically babysits for a weekend. It allows foster parents space and time to recharge and rest. Kinship caregivers don’t have the same access to respite providers.

As a result, if a parent through kinship care wants a night off, then the process they go through is a lot more complicated and involved than a foster parent. The kinship caregiver is responsible for finding someone who is willing to take the child overnight and is willing to go through the process of being approved by the state. When the kinship caregivers I worked with didn’t have anyone who could get approved or who was willing to provide respite, then they didn’t get a weekend off. There are no options after that. There is nothing I can do to provide these caregivers the time to rest that they need. I have had to say, more times than I would like, "I’m sorry. There's nothing that I can do for you.”

I think there is space for both the Church and state to respond. The state should help support kinship caregivers in accessing respite services, and the church should be ready to step in to help kinship caregivers as they navigate their new family structure.

Maria Fynaardt  works to strengthen families and protect children. She shared her professional experience with Time to Care because she believes that upholding families and their responsibilities is part of God's call to government, community, and the Church. She has a Bachelor of Social Work from Dordt College and is currently pursuing her Master of Social from the University of Missouri.

Chelsea Maxwell is the Program Associate of Families Valued, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice, and the contributing editor of Time to Care.

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